Artist Interview: Tom Block

Review cover
Interview with Tom Block
Art Hash, July 2011
Art Hash

Do you have a formal art education or are you a self taught artist:

I have a college degree in English, and only began painting when I was 26.  I fell into it — I had been doing features writing for newspapers and magazines, and illustrating my articles with photographs.  I loved the visual aspects of the work, so I applied to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to study art photography.  They accepted me, contingent on my taking a “summer foundation course” in visual arts (painting, drawing, printmaking etc.), as I had no art background.  During that six week course, I realized that I was, in my heart, a painter.  So when I went to school that fall, I studied only drawing — as I had no background in art — and then in my second year I began to paint.  I dropped out after two years to pursue my art on my own.What is the style of your pieces: I paint in a wide range of styles, both figurative and abstract, though in a general sense, they could all be collected under the heading of “Expressionistic.”  All of my work is driven by philosophical, mystical and activist concerns, generally concentrating on one specific idea (i.e., an exploration of an individual mystic such as Meister Eckhart, Baal Shem Tov, or of a theme such as portraits of human rights defenders), and the visual response that emerges from the initial drawings responds to the impetus.  To see how the ideas dovetail with the series of works, you can visit my website and look through the various collections.

What is the medium in which you work: Again, this depends on the philosophical impetus.  The one medium that unites all of my work is drawing, and I have preliminary, blind contour ink drawings from all of my series.  For finished paintings, I have worked with oil onwood, oil on canvas, acrylic and collage on canvas, acrylic and collage on wood and all kinds of media on paper (including olives and  coffee).

What started you on your path as an artist

Coincidence?  Fate?  As I noted above, I “fell into it” while pursuing studies in art photography, but once I discovered visual art, I was a goner.  From the age of 26 until now, I have produced in the neighborhood of  10,000 drawings and 500 paintings.  

What is one of the most important things that art has brought to your life

Fascinating question.  Hmmmm — in ways, it has brought me tremendous struggle, both positive and negative.  On the plus side, there is no more energizing experience that I have had in my life than the creative search.  Being that there is no “correct” answer to any individual work of art, it is a beautiful metaphor for life itself.  I have loved transforming philosophical ideas and text into the ineffable meaning of visual art.  Additionally, I have done thousands of blind contour drawings, capturing simple moments as I go through my daily life.  Drawings in bars and restaurants, waiting in airports, at meals with my family — discovering the magic of the mundane.  These little moments, in which I discover the interrelatedness of all things (as the line moves from a chair to a shoulder to a plant), as well as dissolving my consciousness, if for but a moment, in the act of seeing, devoid of ego (as I am not looking at the paper and can take no active interest in the final product) has been the greatest joy that art has afforded me. On the down side, being an artist in this culture — and especially an artist whose visual and philosophic aesthetic is rooted in the 19th century — has been very, very tough both existentially (i.e. “if no one values what you do, perhaps it has no value”) and financially.  This is not a gift that I relish.  

What is your favorite genre of art besides the one you work in

I love dance.  I consider my drawings (and at their best, my paintings) frozen dances, and I find the manner in which contemporary dance brings together the aesthetic of drawing with movement and music thrilling. 

Do you have art showings, and if so what are they typically like

I have had many, many art exhibits (more than 100, of which at least half are one-person shows).  Honestly, though, they often leave me a bit deflated, as I almost never find an audience that is genuinely interested in the work.  They are there for other reasons, from the food to be in the “scene.”  The most satisfying exhibits that I have had are at universities, as the audience there is still interested in ideas and artistic technique.  

Do you have a certain set of clothes you make art in

Comfortable, paint spattered and with slippers.  Always with slippers.

What has been the most frustrating part of being an artist?  

No question, the lack of respect for the arts in the United States.  There is a wonderful quote by Elmer Bischoff, the great Bay Area Figurative Artist, upon traveling to Europe for the first time: “For the first time in my life, I was an Artist, instead of just a bastard.”  To be an artist in America is to be met with responses such as: “But seriously, what’s your day job?” or “What do you do for money?”  Never, “What is your art about?”  Having begun my career in Europe (I lived in Spain for three years, and exhibited in Spain, Portugal and Italy), where an “artist” was not only respectable, but admirable, it is always painful to be so marginalized and unappreciated in the culture of my current residence. 

What is your favorite sandwich of all time:  

Excellent question!  Though not much of a fan of sandwiches, my daughters recently introduced me to the “Nutella Tartine,” which has to take the day.

Has this year brought about any changes in your work, and if so what are they:  

Yes.  I had taken a hiatus from painting after the acceptance for publication of my first book (“Shalom/Salaam: A Story of a Mystical Fraternity”  https://www.fonsvitae.com/OnlineStore/tabid/58/pid/361/0784-ShalomSalaam-A-Story-of-a-Mystical-Fraternity.aspx).  After nearly three years off from painting, however, I have returned with a new appreciation and love for the medium, and acceptance (to some extent) of the limits that this culture offers for the 19th century arts.  I am trying to exhibit my work internationally again, however, as I think that there would be more appreciation for the type of work that I do in Europe.

Who is your favorite artist alive or dead

Van Gogh.  Hands down.

What is the most moving piece of artwork that you have seen in person:  

Well, the most moving experience that I ever had was in the Musee d’Orsay (Paris), as I made my way chronologically through the 18th century works.  Room after room held brown and green paintings, landscapes, figurative work etc., when all of a sudden I stepped into a room that held only Van Gogh’s and the whole atmosphere absolutely exploded with color and energy.  It really gave a sense of how shocking his work was at the time!

Do you have any animals, and what do they think of your work:  

We have a snail, but I don’t think that it concerns itself much with art.

Do you have any upcoming exhibitions you would like to share with us:  Currently, I am just gearing my career back up, after this hiatus.  But I was included in the recently published “100 Mid Atlantic Artists” (http://www.schifferbooks.com/newschi/book_template.php?isbn=9780764337345) and I have work with the Phyllis Weston Gallery in Cincinnati and Boxheart Gallery in Pittsburgh.  Hopefully, more shows on the horizon!